We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Summer Reading

Good history, whatever the subject, invariably raises profound moral and ethical questions.  Look behind any field of historical study, and you will discover injustice, failure, fallibility, and suffering of one kind of another.  That is the story of our race—not the whole story, of course, but a central part of it.  The history of war is a case in point, only more so than almost any other field.  Rick Atkinson's recently released, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (Henry Holt, 2013), is an outstanding example of this same point.  The book is a magisterial, well-written, well-sourced study of the last year of World War II on the Western Front.  The text runs to 641 pages, the end notes another 170, and together they describe virtually every aspect of the war from D-Day to the fall of Berlin and slightly beyond.  The courage of the soldiers is here, as is the seamier side of their lives.  The generals for the most part don't do very well in this book as Atkinson devotes painful detail to documenting the many ways they mismanaged their way to victory (or defeat, for the Germans).  The death camps are here also, as is the unnecessary suffering of civilians at the hands of military establishments quick to pull triggers for their own ends.  God, too, makes a couple of brief appearances as Atkinson's sources try to make some sense out of it all.

Good historians are good story-tellers, and Rick Atkinson is a good historian.  He competently (almost wisely) and evenhandedly portrays the immense sadness of war.  He also chisels out a monument to the human spirit, which somehow manages to find its way through war—scarred but also in a way transcendent in the face of all of the unimaginable horror and the depths of human suffering. The Guns at Last Light is going to win its share of prizes, and it should.  It brings Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy," which also includes An Army at Dawn (2002) and The Day of Battle (2007) to a fitting close.  If you enjoy reading history and haven't read any of these books, start with An Army at Dawn and read through them all.